Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Food Network Does The Impossible: I Actually Miss Emeril

There was a time when you could watch the Food Network and watch very accomplished chefs demonstrate some great dishes. I'm not talking about Bobby Flay, or episodes of American Iron Chef, I mean chefs like Sara Moulton, Mario Batali, and, even if you could stay awake long enough, old episodes of Julia Childs' The French Chef. Even Emeril Lagasse, who was on waaay too many times each day BAMMING his way through menus was cooking was cooking things.

Now, the programming seems to be dominated by too many "reality" sorts of shows like The Next Iron Chef and Chopped (both of which seem mostly to be Top Chef knock-offs) or shows about places, like DDD.

Okay, maybe there are some cooking shows, but they mostly seem staffed by people who won the opportunity to host shows, or people with swell cleavage (Giada) or perky people (Rachel Ray) or drunk bimbos (Sandra Lee). I want to see something interesting, as far as real cooking goes. Cleavage is nice and all, but there are other channels for that. I know Food Network must realize there is an issue, because there is now a Cooking Channel.

Anyway. What killed me, literally, was the other night I was watching a show called "Guy, Off The Hook." Ok. It's Guy Fierri, same guy from DDD and Guy's Big Bite. Pretty sure this "Guy" was the first "Next Food Network Star." You would have SWORN you were watching a blonde, spiky Emeril working the crowd. And he really wasn't cooking anything interesting.

When Emeril became a caricature, the Food Network tosses him over the rail. Now they got Guy Fierri becoming equally, if not more, annoying. When will poor Guy sleep with the fishes?

So, like I said, I finally miss Emeril. That means I REALLY miss Mario. Molto.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Turning Japanese? Chuck Williams thinks so.

This is a two-part pre-Christmas rant.

Part I: Williams-Sonoma. And, that's Williams-Sonoma, NOT Williams & Sonoma. (This is a similar lesson to learning not to say Bracco's and Spezia's.) Chuck Williams is a guy who opened a cookware store north of San Francisco in an area famous for wine-- Sonoma County. Hence, Williams-Sonoma. Williams & Sonoma sounds like a law firm.

So, anyway, there was probably a time when Chuck was the MAN when it came to mail-order gourmet cooking equipment. That time was probably from 1956 to some time in the late 80's or early 90's. I remember getting the WIlliams-Sonoma catalog back at the time I was starting to do a lot of cooking. That was right about the same time I got my very own subscription to Gourmet magazine. By the way, Gourmet was a much different publication back then, too, but that's another rant entirely. Anyway, I felt like I had arrived.

If you wanted/needed a cherry pitter, chocolate shaver, and a big old 5 pound bar of Callebaut to shave, Chuck could hook you up. In other words, you could find things at W-S that you probably couldn't find elsewhere. Nowdays, there are many more outlets and W-S has changed.
If you are a student of the W-S catalog, or the retail stores for that matter, it's more about what they think you should want instead of what you need. It's more about life-style than equipment. I think the demise came about around the time Chuck started a housewares outfit called Pottery Barn. Yeah, yeah, yeah, this stuff is real cool and it looks really nice, but if you are a shopping addict, you are going to be remodeling every 6 months to keep up with whatever the latest style might be.

Try this- walk into a W-S store and try to find a decent pair of tongs. Not the big-ass rosewood BBQ ones that are like squeezing one of those spring-loaded grip workout dealies, just a decent pair of stainless steel tongs. End of story- you won't find one, but you will find an espresso machine you'll need financing for, sauces that conveniently make Beef Bourgignonne in a $400 All-Clad crock pot, or whatever the hell color of Provencal place mats they are hocking this year. See, it's not so much about selling you equipment as it is an image.

I suppose this is just good retail and it apparently works. But I seriously just want a pair of tongs or maybe a decent China cap chinois. Need to go elsewhere. My choices? Whenever possible, a local retailer, like Kitchen Window in Uptown of Minneapolis, Someone's in the Kitchen in Rapid City, or Treasures from the Heart on 57th and Louise. Seriously, check that out, they got major stuff in that store disguised as yet another Yankee Candle retailer.

Part II: Despite my ever-growing infrequent purchases from W-S, I do still get the catalog and here comes the turning Japanese part. Remember that song from the 80's, by the way? "Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so." Did you know it's about masturbation? Look it up.

So, the reason I say Chuck thinks we are turning Japanese is because besides outrageously expensive espresso machines, this year's holiday catalog features some crazy spendy Asian-style knives. Specifically, Shun Bob Kramer Meiji knives that you can get ON SPECIAL as a 6-piece set for the low, low price of $1599. Serious bargain considering the regular retail is $2177. Now, I may not know why Owners Equity plus Liabilities = MC squared, or any of that other funny accounting stuff, but I sure as hell know that's $266.67 PER BLADE, on sale. In the same catalog you can get a 12-piece set of Wustof Classic for $500, or for another $200, you can get the same knives with Asian-style handles.

Now, I must admit, the really spendy Shun knives are gorgeous. Damascus steel, cocobolo handles. Really sweet. But who buys these things? My guess, people who have more money than sense or people who want everyone else to be super-impressed because they have really expensive stuff.

Having knives like that is kind of like having a custom-made Holland & Holland shotgun instead of a good old Remington 870 to shoot ducks. They'll both get the job done, but which one are you going to toss in the bottom of the boat while you set decoys? Or, to put it another way, it's perhaps a little like checking a Louis Vuitton hard-sider suitcase for a three-stop trip to vacation. Sure, you can, or could, but why? I mean, who the hell do you think you are the Prince of Whales? You gonna use that $300 santoku to hack through half a chicken, or open a can? Exactly.

The other major beef I got is Asian knives, actually. To give credit where credit is due, they are usually well-made and extremely sharp. But, they are different than the traditional French-styled knives that most of us have seen in kitchens forever. Besides that half-cleaver, half-chef's knife santoku design, these puppies have different edges on them. The bevel on the blade is ground to a different angle. The steel is also a little different than what the Germans crank out in Solingen. It's harder. The point? (Har Har) It's a little harder to maintain the edge on these. The designs of some of these knives are very purpose-oriented. Watch a good Japanese sushi chef use one of those long, skinny blades. If he came up through the traditional Japanese apprenticeship regime, he probably mixed rice for 20 years before he was allowed to wash that knife. Anyway, if you aren't used to these knives and their functions, know they are different, and not necessarily for everyone. Just because they look cool and might appear to give you some out-of-the-box cache, you might not like them.

Good equipment doesn't always come cheap, but it helps to have the right tools for the job. If your budget is somewhat limited, I recommend you take your time finding and buying high-end equipment. Eventually, you will find what you like and be able to afford it, even if it means buying a pan or a knife a year. In the meantime, you are better putting your money into decent ingredients and concentrating on your technique so as not to screw them up. If you can't do that, Damascus steel Shun knives won't save you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

You sound like an idiot, just so you know.

I've heard some people say that we midwesterners have no accent, especially us South Dakotans. Tom Brokaw was the anchor for NBC Nightly News. He didn't have an accent. Right?

Well, just because most people don't run around here talking like extras from the movie "Fargo" doesn't mean that we don't seem to have certain proclivities to abuse the beautiful thing that is the English language. For instance, some people have a seeming inability to pronounce a "g" at the end of most, of not all, words that end in "ing." "We went runnin' down to the pool to go swimmin!" Hate that.

So, what does this have to do with food? I'm getting to that. If there is anything as "Sioux Falls" as two-fer burger night on Tuesday, it's the powerful urge to add "'s" to the end of any restaurant name. Sure, there is McDonald's, and Minerva's, and Foley's. Unfortunately, around here we also have Bracco's, Inca's, and Spezia's. Honest to goodness, I've seen other businesses near 57th and Western advertise their location by stating they are behind Bracco's.

Come on, pay attention. Bracco is not a bar and restaurant founded and operated by Bruno and Barb Bracco and their kids Billy, Bruce, and Bobbie. Inca is the name of a native Central American culture. It is not a surname. Same with Spezia- whatever the hell a "spezia" is. La Spezia is a location in Italy.

Anyway, do yourself a favor and quit adding the possessive "'s" to the end of every restaurant name.

Bring out your dead!

It's been kind of a tough year on a few restaurants here in River City. The free market is kind of a bitch. Let's tally a few things up.

Joey's Seafood is now sleeping with the fishes. It wasn't that hot anyway, as mentioned previously.

Buffaloberries closed with its owner reportedly planning on doing more catering and "education." Ummmmm, ok.

Hoageez, a Philly cheesesteak joint over on 57th and Marion closed. Actually, that location is proving to be a bit of a Bermuda Triangle. This was the former Big City Burrito location, then Hoageez, now Inca Express. Maybe the good folks at Inca can break the curse.

Keg Chicken, East Side location. I'm not quite sure what happened with this one. In my opinion, Keg is the definitive fried chicken experience here in Sioux Falls. From the report in the local daily paper, it sounds as if another venture made the Keg folks an offer they couldn't refuse. We'll see what transpires. At least Keg is still open on the West Side, to satisfy the old fried chicken cravings.

Taste of India. This may be the what the fork of the year. I mean seriously. Dammit. The place wasn't long on decor or ambiance, but the food was divine. Being able to get really great Indian food here was a real plus and made me feel like I don't necessarily live in the middle of nowhere.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we aren't done with casualties in the coming year. There are a couple of places that I am unsure how they stay open. We'll see.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thanksgiving Turkey: Post Game Commentary

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's been a few weeks since Thanksgiving. Things have been busy. But still, I think about that turkey a lot. Every year I scour cookbooks and magazines researching new ideas and techniques to make the most memorable turkey of all time. Every year I try little twists, and talk to many of my foodie friends who tweak their own turkey techniques to see if anyone has struck upon the perfect trick.

Here are a few of the various techniques and ideas I have tried, or that I know others have tried through the years:
  • Wet brine. Find a container large enough to allow the whole turkey to soak in a salt/sugar/herb/spice solution, at a safe temperature of course for a couple of days. The idea here is that the salt in the solution actually activates small electrical charges that relax tissues and allow them to absorb some of the flavorful solution. I've never tried this because it sounds like a major PITA.
  • Dry brine. A/K/A salting. Several days ahead of cooking, mix yourself up a salt/herb mixture and rub it all over that bird inside and out. Seal it up in a big bag and let it sit in the fridge. When I do this I turn the sucker over a few times to let gravity work WITH me for a change. You rinse it all off and let it dry before cooking. Like wet bringing, the general idea is that the salt draws out some moisture which the bird re-absorbs after mingling with the herbs, etc.
  • Roasting bag. Do I really need to explain this?
  • Brown paper bag. Same as plastic roasting bag, but a more eco-friendly approach.
  • Breast up.
  • Breast down. Making gravity work with you, again. Supposedly juices drip down into breast and not out of it.
  • Slow roast. Use a temperature somewhere around 325 degrees.
  • Hot roast. Roast closer to 500. Incidentally, this is rather how Thomas Keller makes chickens and trust me, that's a damned good roast chicken.
  • Different parts. Separate the breast and cook it separately from the thighs and legs and back. Breast meat is done at about 160 degrees, but dark meat should go to 180.
  • Ice the breasts. I am aware of a technique that calls for icing the breast meat with a plastic bag full of ice for 20 minutes or so prior to cooking to give the dark meat a head start on the cooking.
  • Butter under skin. Some people whip up some compound butter and shove that under the skin.
  • Butter on skin. The lotion of choice in flavor town. I might rub some on myself some day.
  • Beer can turkey. Roast vertically with a beer can, probably Foster's in this case, inserted in the poultry's kiester so the liquid in the can (beer, wine, Tab, water) simmers and steams out into the cavity.
  • Deep fry. I bet that's good, but I don't think I want to play with that much oil at that temperature since I really like to drink between basting the bird.
All these choices!! What to do??

After a lot of years of playing with this stuff I have reached the following conclusion: I'll be forked five ways to Fuddrucker's if any of this actually makes a difference. No kidding. Short of marinating a turkey for days in a strong marinade, I am not sure a person can significantly alter the taste of a turkey.

But all is not lost, here is what I think you can control- skin crispiness and bird moisture. If you want a crispy skin, you definitely need to think about cooking a little hotter and might even consider letting the turkey sit open in the fridge a good 24 hours before the cook to let the skin dry. Want moist? You might have to sacrifice the skin crispiness and should probably be working with a covered roaster or a bag. You might even think about breast down. Why not? If you want to hit the holy grail of crisp skin and moist meat, that is all technique, baby. Watch your temperatures and be prepared to tent the bird to keep it from getting too brown. You might also consider your cooking device and consider the benefits of steam in an oven or a ceramic grill. It takes a fine combination of temperature control, a little moisture, and a watchful eye.

No matter how you cook a Thanksgiving turkey, the point is to eat the meal with friends and family and enjoy the bounty of being together. Make a few new side dishes, but keep most of the classics on the table to keep the memories of dinners past alive.

All this talk of turkey has made me hungry and has me thinking of Christmas dinner. And that means prime rib- another ingredient notoriously susceptible to multitudes of cooking technique.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Breathe, my friends. Breathe!

Last night was the first night of the long-overdue implementation of the smoking ban. And what a great night it was!

The evening happened to find me at a local establishment for some beers and dinner. Ok, I was at McNally's. If you've read previous posts about McNally's, you might know I am generally a fan of the place. Good food. Good Guinness. Great atmosphere. Not so good air quality in the past. I have been there on nights when people were smoking and it wasn't too bad, and I have been there at times when it was downright horrible.

Ironically, I stopped by there on Monday night, as well, and observed a number of patrons having what appeared to be one last cigar. The place wasn't packed by any means, but a number of the people there were enjoying a cigar.

Last night, completely different deal. How nice. And probably nice for McNally's. The place was pretty full for dinner on a Wednesday night.

I am sure the ban is going to have different affects on different places. I think the business of a few places will actually improve. It worked for BW3 a long time ago.

It is certainly working well for me. Love the fresh air.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The "new" Hy Vee sucks

I had a chance to visit the "new" Hy Vee store at 57th and Cliff this past weekend. If this is supposed to be an improvement over the Sunshine that previously occupied the space, I am yet to see it. Honestly, Sunshine wasn't much to crow about, but they did have a few nice things that Hy Vee didn't, like honestly priced meat that isn't wrapped in mini-gas chambers.

Amazingly, the same people that brought the Taj Mahal of grocery shopping to Sioux Falls at 37th and Minnesota have apparently managed in one acquisition and "remodeling" to immediately establish the weakest link in its Sioux Falls chain. Maybe Hy Vee just got this location going to make 26th and Sycamore look more glamorous.

Whatever. It sucks. I could go on and explain myself, but no sense in being too negative. Check it out and see if you agree.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Food Chains

For some time I have been observing what I have come to call the over-homogenization of food. You really cannot go anywhere and not, more or less, find exactly the same things. Is that good? Is that bad? Maybe some of both. However you feel about it, the trend is here to stay.

So what am I talking about? Well, if you live here in Sioux Falls, you have probably eaten at Texas Roadhouse, Applebee's, Granite City, Outback Steakhouse, McDonald's, Ground Round, Olive Garden, etc. Chances are, if you have traveled you have, or could have, eaten at the same places. The fact that you can get about the same thing, about everywhere, disturbs me a little.

To cut to the chase, let's start with something near and dear to my forking heart: Beer. Let's go way back. Far enough to a point in time where people will wonder how old I might be. Once upon a time, there was a beer brewed in a small town, outside Denver, called Coors. It was distributed in Colorado and a few other western states like California and Wyoming. If you lived in South Dakota or Minnesota, you couldn't get Coors, which probably made you want it more. You had to wait until your no-account brother in law brought a case or two when he came back for a family reunion at Lake Poinsett. Naturally, everyone treated the dumb jackass like a hero and ohhed and ahhed over the deliciousness of the contraband beverage. Well, Coors finally got here, and how many people do youknow that main-line the Banquet beer? Exactly.

Same thing happened recently with another beer from Colorado, Ft. Collins to be exact: Fat Tire from New Belgium. Good stuff? Sure. As good as it was when you had to bootleg the stuff in? Not so much.

Now, you can get a beer that was only available for those rare trips to Texas- Shiner Bock. It's on tap at the Attic, and probably a bunch of other places around town.

My point is, these few beers used to seem much better when they were forbidden fruit. Something to be enjoyed on a trip to Houston or San Antonio, or a special run to Beulah, WY, to pick up a case of Fat Tire. Now, you can pick them up at Hy Vee.

I swear, the day Yuengling shows up on tap in Sioux Falls, I might just stick a fork in my eye.

Looking at the whole beer experience makes me think of the food. It seems we, as people, always want what we don't have, and the few times we get it, it seems so much better than anything else. If Coors, Fat Tire, and Shiner Bock don't prove that, I don't know what will. But the same thing is likely true for food.

Case in point. If there is one thing people have come to enjoy over the last 5-10 years, it is big Mission-style burritos. These thigh-sized suckers were born in San Francisco, but as it turns out, no one exactly has a patent on 1200 calories of grippable foil-wrapped meat, cheese, beans, rice, and goo. Enter Qdoba. But alas, I am yet to hear from a Qdoba patron who does not decry the fact that the almighty Chipotle has not yet made it to our fair city. "Ohhh, Chipotle is soooo much better than Qdoba! The flavors are better." Well, the jury is out on that one, kids. Been there. Done that. Good? You bet. I was starving and badly in need of a bottle of cerveza because I had already been at the damned Mall of America for 10 minutes. End all be all of big forking burritos? No. Sorry. Did it taste better because I can't get one on the corner of 57th and Louise? Probably.

My point is, I sometimes think some of this stuff tastes better because it is a special treat. You cannot get it at home and, when you are out of town, unless it is for non-stop meetings, this stuff is a treat. When it comes to town, not so much. When was the last time you ordered a straight Coors on tap? See?

This is what I mean by overly-homogenized. Everything is getting to be too "the same" everywhere. Granted, it is nice to occasionally find a safe place to eat, where you know exactly what you are going to get before you go in, but is that really what life is about?

Take a chance, and eat local, my friends. Find places that are not franchises. Eat somewhere that is not advertised in an airline magazine in the seat-back of the plane. Go somewhere you haven't heard of. And soak it up. It will always taste better than a Coors on tap.

Monday, October 4, 2010

RIP: Joey's

The local daily paper is reporting that Joe's Seafood has closed. It's always somewhat sad when we lose a dining option in Sioux Falls, but with all due respect, this one comes as no surprise.

I had a couple of meals at Joey's over the few years it was open. Nothing particularly bad, but nothing particularly good. Overall, a sort of Red-Lobsteresque kind of meal. The times I was there, I thought the service was a little spotty and the beverage choices, particualrly the wine choices were less than stellar.

Ok, one story. A couple of years ago, a friend and I were dining at Joey's. We decided to order mussels as an appetizer. When they appeared, at least a third of them weren't open, which is not really a good sign. We ate the ones that had opened and they were fine. Returning to check on us, the server offered to take the unopened ones back to the kitchen to receive a little more steam time so they would open. Now, anyone who knows why shellfish, like mussels, don't open when they are cooked. If you don't know, it's because shellfish should be live when purchased. When they are cooked, they open. If they don't open, they were dead when they went into the pot and no amount of further cooking can reverse that process. If you are daring enough to pry one open and consume it you will find yourself remembering that particualr meal for a very long time. Very long. Anyway, I was amused to overhear the conversation in the kitchen about the possibility of re-steaming more mussels. To the manager's credit, he offered us a whole new order, which was very nice.

We need more seafood in this town. Good seafood. The sushi places prove it is possible to lay hands on very good fish. Now we just need someone to make the jump on preparing and presenting it properly.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Three Fork Alert: Go to McNally's Right Now and Get a Lamb Burger!

This is the first official Three Fork Alert. And, probably the first thing that justified one. Anyway.

McNally's has a new Fall menu out. Love feature menus. Two things you must have.

First, an appetizer. It is a deconstructed Reuben sandwich. Well, actually, it's dip. It's corned beef, sauerkraut, and cheese. It's all heated in a kiln, from what I can tell, because when it hits your table, the cheese is at like 950 degrees Fahrenheit. Very hot. Very, the roof of my mouth will slough off hot. It is served with little rye bread slices and pita wedges. It's good. And it goes good with beer. Just wait for the cheese to stop glowing like lava until you eat it.

Now for the big one. Huge one. LAMB BURGER. A one-half pound patty of lamb with a slice of cheese, a slice of prosciutto, and some lovely onions braised in balsamic vinegar. Top it with a slice of fresh tomato and that great bread and you got a major winner. MAJOR WINNER.

I cannot figure out what the deal with lamb is around here. The Fork has been West River. You know, that part of the map that starts with Pierre and ends with Wyoming? Hint: Deadwood and Rapid City are "West River."

Anyway, they raise lamb West River. Lots of it. There are towns that are almost founded on lamb out there. Newell comes to mind. (Aside. Newell High School teams are called the Irrigators. That's kinda cool. Better yet, the team from Vale. Yeah, Vale, used to be known as the Beet Diggers. They raised sugar beets out in that country. Serious). Anyway, the St. Onge Livestock Market Sheep auction is in Newell. There is a town near Newell called Nisland. There is a bar in Nisland and there is a saying that goes "Crazier than the Nisland Bar on sale day." Sale day is when the sheep were sold in Newell. Anyway. End of Western SD stories. Trust me, though, if you have ever been to Nisland, or known someone form Nisland, this would make a hell of a lot more sense.

Bottom line is, we raise a bunch of sheep right here in SD, but I will be damned if I can figure out where it goes. I mean, when I buy good lamb to cook, I inevitably end up at Sam's Club buying New Zealand lamb racks. Great price and trimmed well, by the way, but a shame to buy foreign lamb from the bastards who are destroying the whole country. But that is a different story. I do not know why we cannot buy good local lamb locally.

For those of you who think you don't like lamb, go get one of those burgers at McNally's. Seriously. The bomb. You will probably be at the Turner County Fair next year getting real lamb chislic.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Politics of Food: The Event Center

It is fall and fall in an even-numbered year means political season in South Dakota. Politics and food often intersect. If you have ever been in Pierre during a legislative session, you would most definitely get a feel for that.

It is not on the ballot this year, and may not be for some time, but as anyone around here knows, the construction of an event center is a major political football here. Just when it looks dead, it returns with a vengeance. The mayor seems intent on building a facility, according to some notion hatched during the last campaign. But the history of getting this project to sell with the electorate is not favorable. Where the whole concept stands now is any one's guess. The city leaders continue to discuss some form of a project, but are reluctant to share that concept with the public. So much for transparency.

I have no doubt that at some point, a new event center will be built in Sioux Falls. This city has an uncanny ability to get these things done somehow despite the loud voices of the naysayers. Let;s just hope it gets done right, And right, by my estimation, means that it gets built downtown.

A downtown event center is a win win win proposition. Assuming you agree with the proposition that this town needs an event center for better concerts, sporting events, and conventions, downtown is the place.

Face it, the only reason to have a new event center out by the arena, or worse yet, somewhere out by an exchange of the only two interstate highways in the state is to have acres of dead flat parking surrounding the thing.

The reason to have an event center downtown is to leverage everything else. I imagine if you could drive downtown for say, an Elton John concert, or a hockey game, and grab a little diner in any of the number of fine places within walking distance. You could enjoy the concert and then take a nice stroll up Phillips Avenue and around downtown to look at sculpture, or perhaps catch some jazz at Touch of Europe, late dessert, or a libation. Try and do that at West Ave and Russell or out in the middle of nowhere.

As an added bonus, just think about what that boost in development downtown could do for getting the West bank and Phillips to the Falls jump started? How about the surrounding neighborhoods for that matter. So many times I hear places like Detroit criticized because the city planners and developers kept moving outward from the city center leaving the older areas to whither on the vine or rot outright. Building the event center between 6th and 8th, near Cherapa Place would jump start revitalization of the Whittier neighborhood like nothing else.

I truly hope we can get this thing built and get it built in the right place. Downtown.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Do as I say and no one gets hurt.

Those are words to live by. Seriously. If everybody would simply do what I tell them to do, how I tell them to do it, and when I tell them to do it, everything would work out a whole lot better around here. This simple rule is the law in my kitchen, but it could transform life as we know it. I can think of several examples right off the tips of my tines. For instance . . . Well, I digress.

"So, what the fork does this have to do with the food and fun scene?" you ask. Simple. I sense some level of ennui with the local scene these days. As blessed as we are here to have a pretty good, and ever developing food scene, things could always be better. And, considering that things are always better when people do what I tell them to do, here are a few instructions. So, pay atttention.

  1. Decent seafood. If there is a really great place to get seafood here, I haven't found it. Sure, sure, almost all the nicer places in town have some sort of fish selection on the menu. And by that I generally mean one selection. I am talking about a restaurant that wants to specialize in seafood. Good seafood. Not Joey's. Not Red Lobster. I said good. We used to have two restaurants that tried very hard to offer great seafood: The Galley and The Maine Lobster. In this day and age, we should have at least one seafood centered fine dining option in this town.
  2. French. A few places flirt with French-like cooking, but no one seems to be willing to take the plunge and go all out. I don't think it would have to be a starched white linens type of place, but I would love to have a place in Sioux Falls that wants to embrace the true art of French cooking.
  3. Indian place. The great food tragedy of the last year is the closing of Taste of India. WTF? Who let this happen? Indian cuisine is sublime and Saif did a masterful job preparing it at Taste of India. Tragic. When you need vindaloo, nothing else will do.
  4. More wine. I am getting tired of drinking the same crap everywhere I go in town. We have some very good retailers, but I want to sit down somewhere and try about 20 wines by the glass some afternoon. With such a resurgence in wine, why can't we have a really good wine bar.
  5. Pass the damned smoking ban. I am soooooo ready for this. My political intuition tells me the voters of SD are going to snuff out smoking in bars. Somebody must be polling and those numbers must be looking good, otherwise it would be absolute jihad between the campaigns by now. I cannot wait to go to some of my favorite watering holes and not have to worry about coming home smelling like I have been at a chain-smoking convention. Breathing is kind of nice, too.
  6. Steak. When I say I can cook a steak at home better than anyplace around here, I am NOT exaggerating. Ironically, if I lived in Pierre, I might not be able to make that claim. I swear the Cattleman's Club soaks their steaks in MSG, because I just cannot seem to get a steak anywhere else in SD that has that kind of great flavor. We got bupkus for really good steak options here in Sioux Falls. If your idea of a great steak is a meal at Texas Roadhouse or Outback, you don't get it. And just for the record, Foley's sucks. We produce some of the best beef in the world here, we just refuse to serve it properly, apparently.
  7. Tapas. How good would that be?
  8. Thai. Ditto.
  9. Deep dish Chicago-style pizza. We got thin crust brick oven pizza like Carter has pills. There was a time when we had a small place cranking out respectable Chicago-style pies. Why can't we have one now.

So, if someone would get on this list, pronto, things would be a lot better. Trust me.

For the love of God, don't take them to Applebees.

Not long ago, I was listening in as a relative was mentioning places to take some guests from another country. When the host mentioned a likely stop at Applebee’s after picking up the guests at the airport, I exclaimed, “Please, for the love of God, don’t take them to Applebee’s!” This started an argument that lasted for about a half hour, but that is another story.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t harbor any grudge against Applebee’s. I’ve had some decent, reasonably priced meals at Applebee’s through the years, and it’s a reliable option when you find yourself in someplace like, well, Watertown. But when foreign nationals are visiting, it just doesn’t seem right to take them to a place they can find in almost any American city or airport. So, where would you take foreign visitors?

Here are a few of my own ideas:

Fine Dining. Although Sioux Falls restaurants really cannot compete with those in places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Las Vegas, you can get some damned fine fine dining fare here. Because it features great local ingredients handled with great care and turned into really stellar meals, Parker’s gets a nod. Also going on the list is the Blue Sage Grill at Cherapa Place. Unfortunately, the best place to get a really decent piece of South Dakota beef cooked perfectly is my house, and I am not hosting everyone’s friends and relatives. Blue Sage does a pretty masterful job with some ingredients that are more South Dakota-y. If you want to feed the guests some buffalo, that might be a good place to try.

Casual. Now here is a broad category. Anyway. Let’s say you have a relative from Southern California that insists there are no decent Mexican restaurants outside California. Here’s a week’s worth of eating projects. In a town where Mexican used to mean Chi Chi’s, there are now many options for Mexican ranging from the familiar Tex-Mex to seriously authentic food. Inca, Nikki’s, Puerto Vallarta, Azteca, or numerous others should give you more than enough to choose from and keep you out of the chain joints. Although, having just said that, a late-night run through a Taco Johns drive through may be in order for a little embarrassingly American indulgence.

There are lots of other unique casual options. Buffalo Wild Wings for copious amounts of tap beer and wide varieties of wing sauce. Bracco for the whole deck experience.

Pizza. Here’s another category replete with options that show off lots of local talent. For me, Red Rossa is a must do. For a gourmet pizza experience, I think Red Rossa is hard to beat. Grille 26 also offers some great pizza options. It’s not quite the same as Red Rossa, but I like the softer crust. Great happy hour deals at Grille 26. Spezia also offers the same type of pizza, but I’ve never liked the pizza there as well as Red Rossa or Grille 26. For non-brick oven pizza, I prefer Tomacelli’s to the other local options.

Burgers. If there is an official food of Sioux Falls, it must be burgers. Seems like every place serves them, and a BOGO or some other sort of burger feature is pretty much standard in all Sioux Falls eateries. Tre offers 20, count ‘em 20, different burgers on Monday evenings. McNally’s makes a pretty credible burger with good beefy taste and a nice bun. Remember though, the kids aren’t welcome at McNally’s. If you are looking for a “family bar” option (another seemingly SD offering) try the Attic for a burger. Bracco used to make a pretty good burger, but I frankly haven’t been in the place recently enough to say how they are doing with burgers these days. They used to be great. Hemmer Brothers makes a phenomenal bar-style burger without the bar. If you want the whole-hog bar experience with your burger, Little Coalinga is the only clear choice. For a burger time machine, try Hamburger Inn.

Treats. You simply have to get some soft serve ice cream squirted, whipped or whirled into various creations. You could go to Dairy Queen, but I am taking my guests to B&G Milkyway. I love that small town service and flavor, accompanied by the slightest twinge of the sanitizer water used to clean the mixer between Avalanches. Another great thing to try at B&G is the super nachos. This is pretty much the low brow deconstructed pile of goo. All the makings of the usual nachos are there- non-chunky chili, bright orange cheese-flavored ooze, pickled jalapeno slices, chopped onions, a blast of sour cream dispensed from something that looks like a caulk gun, and a neatly arranged row of chips in a styrofoam container. You’d have to blend this stuff with more chemicals and put it all in a tin can to make it any more processed, but in a way, it is kind of an ultimate junk food nod to haute cuisine. All the ingredients are separated, hence the deconstructed thing.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Good Bye Sunshine, Hello Hy Vee

So, Hy Vee has purchased three stores in Sioux Falls and plans to close one and convert the other two to Hy Vee stores in the near future. Yikes.

I hate to see this kind of thing happen, because in the end it is going to affect the choices grocery shoppers have every day. With this move, there will only be two major grocery retailers in Sioux Falls: Hy Vee and Walmart. (Don't even get me started on Walmart.) Sure, there will be other small, independent grocers like Andy's and Franklin Food Mart, and specialty stores like Look's, Cleaver's, and even The Market on Phillips. Even though some people enjoy grocery shopping and will seek out certain products from certain places- steaks from one place, wine from another, fresh vegetables from the Farmer's Market- for a whole lot of people going to the grocery store is a real chore and a large expense, so if it can be done in one fell swoop, all the better. And, at some point, almost every consumer has to stop for something at one of the big grocers.

Hy Vee tends to drive me nuts. I am often astonished by the poor quality of produce at 26th and Sycamore, assuming they even have what I wanted in the first place. I've been confronted with pricing on fruit that could have easily formed the basis of a math problem on the SAT. The bakery bread selection sucks unless all you want is soft wheat or white formed into different shapes. The meat pricing at Hy Vee is an absolute sham- I nearly stroke out while I stand at the meat case running the numbers in my head. Seriously, it's a screw job. But, glutton for punsishment that I am, I keep shopping there. It also turns out that the Secret Teaspoon is a member of a local sports team that takes advantage of scrip programs to help fund the activity, so a part of our purchases at Hy Vee are credited toward our tab with the team.

The thing I don't think a lot of people realize about Hy Vee is how deftly they have been able to remove some barriers to their business model. For instance, there used to be a limit to how many retail off sale liquor licenses a corporate entity like Nash Finch or Hy Vee could hold. The South Dakota Legislature passed a bill to revise that limit. That's why you see huge liquor departments in every major grocery retailer these days. When the bill was making its way through the Legislature, it was referred to as the Hy Vee bill. See the connection? Remember when you could only buy beer on Sundays? That was a city ordinance, and a dumb one at that, but who do you think led the charge to get that one changed?

Sunshine isn't exactly a grocery palace itself, but they did several things better than Hy Vee. Honest meat that isn't sealed in little portable gas chambers priced in a straight-forward manner comes to mind. Sunshine also has some sales and specials, including Milk Mondays. that we usually took advantage of. The bottom line was, at least with Sunshine, you had an option. Now, not so much.

The loser here is the consumer because Hy Vee will be the dominant grocery retailer in the area. If you think you can't get decent produce at 26th and Sycamore now, just wait until they know that your options are to go to Hy Vee on E 10th, Minnesota, or 57th and Cliff. Good luck with that. And good luck seeing a major competitor come in and try to muscle into the market in the near future.

I might just have to swing into Andy's one of these days. I wonder if we can get Andy's on the scrip program?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wine Pricing at Restaurants

As a follow-up on the corkage fee discussion, I thought it might be time to discuss wine pricing at restaurants. Anyone who is familiar with retail wine prices should have a pretty good feeling for the markup of the price of a bottle of wine when you get that bottle at a restaurant as opposed to a retailer. It can literally be a factor of 1.5 to 2, or even a skosh more. At first blush, this seems a little excessive, but a little logic explains why this is necessary. It takes time, money, and space (all critical to any business) to procure, properly store, and serve wines in a restaurant setting. Even though the price of a bottle may be two or more times what you might pay at your local wine shop, I doubt most restaurants are raking in the cash selling wines.

The bottom line is that wine can be a spendy accompaniment to a meal when dining out. You are going to pay more. Get used to it. It's a fact of life. The real question is how do you recognize a value and how do you decide some particular price is just too high? Granted, it's not easy, and you will most definitely pay your share of "tuition" to become somewhat comfortable in the area. But, it is not as daunting as it seems.

  • Get familiar with wine prices in your area. Next time you run down to your retailer of choice, take your time and explore the shop. Look carefully at what is available and make note of the prices. In South Dakota, our "three tier" alcohol distribution system esentially means that certain distributors have dibs on certain wines. Accordingly, one would expect that the veritable monopoly this creates means that prices of a certain wine from the distributor to the retailer remain identical across the board. Not necessarily. Some retailers get deals- maybe based on volume, maybe based on relationships- there is not always rhyme or reason to this. Needless to say, though, retail prices can vary. The only way to get a feel for those prices is to get out and check them out. Take notes if that would help.

  • Once you have a feel for the retail price of wines, you can start to benchmark them against prices at various restaurants. My advice is to find a couple particular wines to use for comparisons. For example, you might know that J. Lohr Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon goes for about $18 bucks a bottle at most retailers. If you see it for $40 on a wine list, you can get an idea of the markup. If you notice it for $35 somewhere else, file that away into your data base.

  • Study, study, study. This is a touchy subject for me. Although knowledge of wines is power, too little is dangerous and too much can either vapor lock you or turn you into the worst kind of wine snob. Personally, I think you need to be familiar with varietals, appelation, and vintage. Older wines are not necessarily better wines. It all depends. Some years are better than others for certain varietals, but that can vary by location (appelation). If you aren't reading or talking to people, you might not know why, say 2005 was better for Sonoma cabs than 2007. If you aren't personally wired into the industry, you are going to have to read to keep up on this stuff. It can pay off, though, because sometimes local restaurants and servers aren't paying attention to vintages. You order the Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel, that's what comes out- but you might get a superior vintage, if you know what years you are dealing with. Don't be afraid to point out to your server that you were hoping to get the 2004 instead of the 2005. Nevertheless, too much knowledge can be a bad thing. Easily, one of the most annoying things I encounter in the wine world is the seeming ability of some people to memorize and rattle off the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker ratings for myriad wines. Look, if you can't consistently distinguish a wine rated 95 from a similar wine rated 85 in a blind tasting, just shut the hell up. Ratings have a place, and can be very helpful, but they are not and should not be the bellweather for selecting and distinguishing one wine from another. Only your own palate can do that for you.

  • Make friends with the "wine person." At most of the snazzier restaurants here in town, there is someone wandering around there that knows a whole lot about the wines on the list. He or she probably selected most of them for specific reasons. Don't be afraid to talk to this person and definitely don't be afraid to be very frank about what you want. Although restaurants are in the business of making sales, they also want you to leave happy and to come back. Tell the wine person what you are considering for entrees, what your likes and dislikes are, whether you are particularly interested in a certain appelation or varietal and what you are looking to spend. Please don't be afraid to ask about the values on the list. A good sommelier will point out wines that are drinking beyond their price.

  • Oddly enough, the more expensive the wine, chances are the less steep the markup. It's a little odd, but it's true. For instance, you might notice wines that you can buy for $10-12 on a list for around $25-30-- think Black Opal, Fisheye, Yellow Tail, etc. More expensive wines are not going get that kind of treatment. An example I have noticed right here in Sioux Falls are some of the Jessup Cellars wines. A bottle of Jessup Zin retails for about $40. You won't find that wine on any wine list in town for $80-90. You might even find it somewhere for about $50.
Get out there and check it out.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Corkage Porkage?

I was reading reviews on urbanspoon the other day and noticed a comment by someone regarding the $25 corkage fee charged by Parker's. Needless to say, the writer thought the fee was utterly uncalled for, excessive, and greedy. Hmmmmm. I'm not sure if the writer was implying that any amount was too much or just that $25 was too forking high.

It's an interesting topic, though.

For those who have no idea what a corkage fee is, it's a charge made by restaurants for the privilege of opening a bottle of wine that has been brought along with the diner. This is not to be confused with restaurants that are literally BYOB. (There are none of these I know of in Sioux Falls, but I am familiar with several in Chicago. Great places and you are free to drink on the premises. You just have to bring it along.) Corkage fees can vary. A lot.

So, let's address the first question: Is a corkage fee fair in the first place? You bet your sweet bippy it is! It's a restaurant for crying out loud. You know? A place that serves food, and often offers various beverages, often including cocktails, beers, soft drinks, and wine-- for money? They prepare and serve all this in a hopefully warm and tasteful atmosphere, staffed by knowledgeable, appreciative, and professional persons. In terms of wine, they have hopefully stocked a cellar with thoughtful selections ideally designed to compliment the food they serve. If they have really done a stellar job with the wines, they have a range of styles to suit individual tastes and have a few very special selections to suit individual passions. Someone had to figure all that out, and then the establishment had to lay out the ca-ching to stock the cellar. And, don't forget all the other things today's diners and winers demand- professional staff that knows how to present and open a bottle and good glassware that is appropriate for the wine. (Think Reidel.) All this takes money, all of which goes into the cost of the bottle of wine you order.

Bringing in a bottle of wine is akin to walking into a restaurant with a meal cooked at home, or take-out from another place, and asking for plates and flatware so you can eat it at the restaurant. Seriously. Think about it. These places aren't in business to provide ambiance for free. Actually, we have places like that here in Sioux Falls- they are called parks. Restaurants deserve to make an honest buck. They are going to make something when a patron orders a bottle of wine, or a beer, or a Diet Coke, or a steak. If you bring in your own, the restaurant has to bring you glasses you might break, and that have to be bussed and cleaned. The owners get the risk without any reward. If you think you should get this for free, there is something wrong with you. And, think of this, a private business owner would be well within his or her rights to tell you to put that bottle of 1945 Lafitte back in the Hy Vee bag you brought it in, because you ain't gonna open it here.

So, what is an honest buck? Good question. It's obviously in the eye of the beholder. In reality, it probably depends on the general expense level of the particular restaurant you are visiting. If they don't offer wine at all, you might catch a heck of a break on the corkage fee. If the list trends to the high end- mostly in the three digits and several in the four (or even five) digit range, don't expect a $25 corkage fee. A fee that is more or less in line with a moderate purchase is probably about right.

Tips to avoid corkage problems, and perhaps avoid one. Yes, here it is, the bullet point list of various tips and suggestions in no particular order:
  • Avoid an unpleasant surprise- call ahead. Corkage fees are not always prominently placed on the menu. Bringing in your own bottle(s) might not be allowed at all. Better to know ahead of time and be prepared.

  • BYOB sparingly, and only for special wines. What is a special wine? Easy. If you can buy it at Hy Vee, it probably isn't all that special. A special bottle purchased at a winery on that last trip to Napa- a wine that isn't available in SD, would probably qualify. The bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon given as a wedding gift by your inlaws is probably a winner. A truly rare vintage, lovingly stored, is probably in this category. 1995 Screaming Eagle Cab? You betcha.

  • If you are bringing in a wine that is generally available locally, but not on the list, suggest the restaurant add it. Hell, even if it's not generally available, ask. Restaurants and retailers usually have great connections with their distributors and, believe it or not, it is possible to get new wines into the state.

  • Offer your servers/owners/wine person a little snoot of your special treasure. They might appreciate it enough to waive a fee or two. You don't need to get half the house tipsy. Just be thoughtful and gracious.

  • Don't be a snob about your juice. Jerks are a lot easier to treat unreasonably. Even if it is a 1945 Bordeaux en magnum, it's wine, not water from the fountain of youth or Love Potion Number 9. If you brought it in to make a production and have everyone wonder what you've got and wish they were you, your priorities are out of whack.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Few Reasons Why The Attic Is A Great Place

The Attic, located on the eastside at 41st and Sycamore is coming up on its second year anniversay. I can barely wait for the Second Annual Jackass Roundup!

The Attic has been a great addition to the eastside, which was facing a serious watering hole deficit after Boomer's closed. Major bummer. I still miss Boomer's. Making a quick run to Hy Vee for "groceries" just hasn't been the same since. I guess there is always Cherry Creek and Dean-Os, but the Attic offers a less-restauranty feel than Cherry Creek and more than a video lottery joint feel that Dean-Os. Its also bigger than Stubbies, which, ironically, is kind of a family bar. (I'm not kidding- check the place out on any Friday night during youth football season.)

So, what's good about the Attic? Let's run down a few points.

  • Fairly nice atmosphere. The inside of the Attic isn't the Polo Club, but then it isn't like a concrete bunker (Lie-brary), either. The decor is meant to look like, well, an Attic, I guess. The walls are dark and done in numerous different textures. If you are thinking about going funky finish on some walls in your house, come check it out. There are open beams and dyed concrete floors with impressions of tools and other interesting items. Hanging from the ceiling are a few remnants of holiday decorations ranging from one remaining Christmas tree to some Halloween decorations. You have to check the place out during the holidays and see the Christmas trees hanging upside down from the ceiling. It's really kind of cool. The Attic also tries to divide the place, literally right down the middle, between more-sit down tables and the higher ones generally found in sports-bar type places. Arguably, if you are inclined to bring the kids, and plenty of people do, you can sit at a more restaurant-like table than a bar-like table. There is even an outdoor patio area.

  • Good food. The Attic has a great selection of bar food fare, accented with some more sit-down kind of offerings like steaks or pork chops. On the menu, you will find plenty of appetizer selections including chislic (good stuff) and a platter of nachos that would feed a family of 8. In addition to burgers (which are really good when you need that Jimmy Buffet fix) there are also fairly creative and original sandwiches. One interesting item on the former menu was the Prairie Chicken- a piece of fry bread (think Indian taco) topped with sliced grilled chicken breast, lettuce, ranch sauce, and guacamole. On the new menu there is a sandwich consisting of an Italian sausage patty topped with cheese, peppers, onions, and a mustard sauce. It's good, but plan on dropping a few Zantac. As sides, you can get fries, horseradish mashed potatoes, waffle fries, ranch fries (cubed potatoes sprinkled with ranch), potato salad, etc. There is also a nice offering of salads, soup and chili. And, if you missed the hint, they change the menu a little now and then- always good to keep it fresh.

  • Reasonably-priced, quality adult beverages. Does this need an explanation? Go to happy hour with your pals. Drink several rounds. Giggle when you get the check. If you like beer, you'll also appreciate the extreme cold of a frosty mug. You might not get one of these if the place is busy, but they are super nice. If you ever drank at a place in Vermillion called Friday's, back in the good old 3.2 beer days, an Attic frosty mug will bring back some memories, or at least a flashback. Like the sign at Famous Dave's says, "Tooth Crackin' Cold Beer."

  • Plenty of electronic diversions. If sitting around drinking and eating isn't enough stimulation for you, the Attic offers two pool tables, two dart boards, a Golden Tee game, a Big Game Hunter video game, various televisions, and a great "juke box." Video lottery is in a completely separate space, physically separated from the main bar and dining area. I've literally never been in there. I doubt the players mind the relative isolation and I know it sure doesn't bother me.

  • Great Staff. Over the last few years, there has been a little staff turnover at the Attic. Fortunately, some of the very best are still there. (A few are going to need a little more training to meet the caliber of the vetrans.) Treat these folks right and they will make sure your needs are definitely met, if not anticipated.

  • Fun Special Events. About twice a month, the Attic tries to have some sort of special event. In December, it was an ugly Christmas sweater party. In January, a Snuggie part. There is also a special birthday night to celebrate all the birthdays of that month. Also watch for special events in the fall and summer, like the Annual Jackass Roundup, when you might get to enjoy a live band in the side lot under a tent.

If there is one drawback to the Attic, it's got to be the general smokiness of the place. If it's not too busy, and someone isn't chain smoking right next to your table, it's not too bad. Even if it's busy, it's relatively good if half the place isn't puffing away. Nevertheless, there are times when I swear it gets as bad as places where you expect to be overwhelmed. I also swear there are smoke epicenters in the place. I was once in there chatting with a friend and about 12 feet away sat an older woman (hell, she could have been 35, but looked 60- smoking will do that to you) and from the smell and general disgust, you'd have thought you were sitting on her lap. YUCK.

I understand Attic management considered voluntarily putting the ki-bosh on smoking around the time the ban became effective (and then referred) but opted not to do so. I can understand that, but WHEN the voters finally enact the long-overdue ban on indoor smoking, the Attic is going to be among the very top tiers of fun hang-out places in Sioux Falls.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Follow Up Visit to Parker's: Reflections on a Bad Experience

Parker's on Urbanspoon

I've been trying to write this post for some time now. The What The Fork incident that inspired it really torqued me off. I've been stewing/seething over it, trying to think of a way to turn it into a positive experience, to look for some deeper lesson, to not sound like a PO'd crank tossing verbal hand grenades from the anonymity of the blogosphere. I think I finally reconciled the experience, or perhaps rationalized it. So, for what it may be worth, here it goes-

The Incident:

Some time ago, in the not-so-distant past, I had a special occasion to celebrate. A particularly thoughtful friend had supplied me with a gift certificate to Parker's and the Secret Salad Fork hadn't been there yet, so a trip to Parker's was most definitely in order. A couple days before the special occasion, I figured I better call for a reservation. If you are in any way tuned-in to the food scene in Sioux Falls, you should immediately recognize that Parker's is the "it" place right now. Yes, Parker's can get busy and reservations are definitely recommended.

Unfortunately, getting a reservation for dinner was almost an insurmountable task, but not for the reason one would expect. I had a difficult time getting a reservation because NO ONE WOULD ANSWER THE FORKING PHONE. Parker's has an answering machine, but I am not sure why. A message was left, but alas, no call was returned. Under most circumstances, I would have ceased all efforts to patronize an establishment that presents such challenges to doing so. I really wanted to go, though. I tried again- no answer. After my last call, literally placed from a cell phone from across the street, went unanswered, I resorted to walking in to get a reservation.

But wait, it gets better (or worse, depending on one's perspective). As I patiently waited at the host station, the phone started ringing, Ha! The sucker should have known you can't actually call for a reservation, you have to walk in like I did. Wrong. I got to stand there and wait while Stacy answered the telephone and booked a reservation! This takes several minutes. While standing right there, trying to will my blood pressure out of the danger range, I am also intently noting the reservation that is being booked. It's for the date and time I wanted. And it's for a group! Now my vision is starting to blur. I just knew I was going to get hosed because lucky caller 13 actually got through to a live person and I was going to helplessly watch the situation unfold.

Finally, Stacy gets the reservation booked and has an opportunity to address the hapless walk-in, me. Sure, she'd be happy to make a reservation, but it takes several awkward moments to find the book wherein she just noted the reservation for the group that phoned it in minutes ago. Once found, and reviewed, it is noted that the restaurant will be particularly busy at the appointed date and time because several groups will be coming in. (No kidding. I was standing right here when it happened.) Perhaps I am interested in coming in earlier, for instance an hour, or so, earlier. What I should have said was, "No, thank you. It's a special occasion and I'd really prefer not to adjust my plans." Instead, I said, "That'll be fine." By God, I went in there to get a reservation and I was going to come out with a reservation. Of course, I then spent the balance of the evening running over and over this series of events making myself angry all the while.

Interestingly, when we presented ourselves for dinner, both the Secret Salad Fork and I shared the opinion that it didn't appear the good folks at Parker's had the reservation noted.

So, how was the food? Great. Get down there and try the duck before the menu changes. It's absolutely divine. That's all I am saying about the food, though. This post isn't about the food.

Overall, we didn't think the entire experience was so hot. We weren't shown to a table- we were seated at a "two-top." (I know that's restaurant lingo, but I don't need to hear it as a customer.) I want to be shown to my table. The aforementioned two-top was located in the front of the establishment, near the huge glass window which does a phenomenal job of transmitting South Dakota's extreme winter temperature to the inside. (It was chilly. Not intolerable, but chilly.) Service was okay, insofar as orders were accurately taken and food delivered. No fresh fish, which sent the Secret Salad Fork into a tizzy. The Secret Salad Fork loves fresh fish when dining out and failure to meet that expectation will generally immediately change the tone and tenor of the evening. No one comes by to refill water. Desert isn't that hot. The owner's oldest son is observed walking around chomping on a piece of bread.

We left. Well nourished in a physical sense, but spiritually unsatisfied.


After much thought, and several attempts to write this post, it finally occurred to me what my problem was and what are the take aways. My problem was that I was so put off by the whole debacle of trying to get a reservation, that I became hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight or error. I will be honest enough to admit that some of this still lingers when I visit Parker's. It put a burr under my saddle, a chip on my shoulder, a bee in my bonnet, and it's going to take some time to earn back my full trust. A great restaurant should leave a person talking about the food, but also thinking that the service was attentive without being obtrusive. The owners not only appreciated the patronage, but made the diners feel welcome. In short, a person should leave with a strong desire to come back. Soon.

What are the take aways? In no particular order of importance, here are a few thoughts:
  • You're only as good as the weakest link in the chain. A trip to a restaurant, especially one holding itself out as a premier fine dining establishment, should be a total experience. The food should be great, but the staff should be equally warm and engaging. Wait staff need to be more than delivery personnel. Parker's has spot-on, out of sight, insanely good food. But, if the front-of-house staff, including owners, cannot match that level, the experience is not what it should be.
  • Some things can't be fixed. Face it. People screw up. It happens. Reservations are going to get lost. A steak is going to get overcooked. These things can be remedied quickly. A round of drinks, a complimentary bottle of wine, free desert for the table, or even comping the whole meal can salvage a whole lot of goodwill lost through simple, or even big mistakes. Heck, even a simple apology can do the trick. A good server can tell immediately when a diner isn't happy with some aspect of the food and sweep in for the rescue with a fix. But how do you fix a crappy front of house experience? I am yet to have a server come up to me and say, "I'm having a difficult day and I've kind of treated you a little like crap tonight, so let me get dessert for you." Look, we all have those days, but certain people just aren't allowed to have a bad day at work. Brain surgeons and airline pilots immediately come to mind. But that also goes for wait staff, bartenders, maitre d's, owners, and other people who collectively make up the face of a restaurant. I don't care if your kid wrecked the car and lied about flunking her geometry final, you don't get to take that stuff to work and inflict any sense of it on the guests. If you aren't fully prepared to give a 100% performance, stay home.
  • Most people, if not the vast majority of people, aren't going to say anything about bad or sub-par service. Should I or could I have said something about the difficulty of making a reservation? Maybe, but I knew I had to blog about this and I wasn't going to blow my cover. Besides, I wanted to see if Stacy was going to ask me why I didn't just call to make the reservation. She didn't. (Okay, last rant about walking in to get a reservation. Doesn't that strike you as a tad odd? Who walks into a downtown restaurant for the distinct purpose of making a reservation for another evening? Who doesn't use a telephone to make reservations in Sioux Falls? Really? This doesn't pique your interest just a teeny bit? End of last rant.) Anonymity notwithstanding, I probably wouldn't have said anything anyway. Perhaps I am just overly passive-aggressive. Maybe I was scarred by the experience of watching a friend who was supposed to be treating me to dinner deliver an unreasonable tongue-lashing to a waitress for a series of minor faux pas. (Some people think a license to bitch is included in the price of the meal.) Maybe I just don't want to rat out a server to the boss because I am afraid he will spit in my salad next time. Maybe the owner doesn't seem too approachable. There is a very narrow tier of people between the jackasses who live to make a scene and the people who would rather suffer in silence. I think most people will not register a complaint- they just won't come back, or at least come back as often.
  • It's important to treat all people like they are special. I could be wrong, or perhaps am still under the influence of my hyper-sensitivity, but from the times I have been there, I would say the ownership-types at Parker's are pretty good at warming up to the friends and favorites (folks who dine there weekly or more, or who own insurance companies, for instance) and not so good at making the new faces feel like part of the in-crowd. If I was seated at a table nearby say a prominent local lawyer who has announced his candidacy for Governor, I bet I wouldn't get a fraction of the wit and charm that would be exchanged there. Granted, people will always have friends, family, and special customers that get treated a little better, but you have to try to treat everyone like they are special.
  • Answer the forking phone and return messages. I'd bet anyone a pound of fois gras that if I called The French Laundry in Napa Valley right now to make a reservation, someone would answer the telephone. I don't have any delusions that I would actually get a reservation, but at least I'd talk to a real human being, who would probably apologize for my disappointment and suggest a better time to try to make a reservation.
  • Don't list things on the menu if you can't serve them with regularity. One of the most interesting lessons I have learned somewhat recently is that expectations can be managed. Sincerely. If you list a fresh fish on the menu, you have created the expectation that a fresh fish is available every day. Gumbo is on the menu. Gumbo is available every day. If the fresh fish menu item is not available every day, you have failed to manage the expectation. For a whole lot of people, like the Secret Salad Fork, a few shrimps on a salad or in a pasta dish is not a reasonable substitute for a piece of fish. There are two clear fixes for this: (1) take the fresh fish off the damned menu and offer it as an extra special feature on the occasions you actually have it or (2) have plan B ready. If the plane flying in the Mahi Mahi from Hawaii crashes in the Rockies, good thing you have some halibut or salmon on hand. This isn't complicated stuff.
I know others gush about the service at Parker's, but for me, lately, the front of house just hasn't risen to match the caliber of the food.